For most of the past 30 years Jack Nicklaus (born 1940) has been considered golf's greatest. His longevity has proved equal to Arnold Palmer's, and only Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones can be considered players in Nicklaus's league.
In numbers of major tournaments won, golfer Jack Nicklaus stands alone with 20 victories—a remarkable figure that does not include major titles won on the Senior Tour. He has won 70 times on the PGA Tour and had 58 second-place and 36 third place finishes. Nicklaus has finished top PGA Tour money winner and held the tour's low-score average eight times. He was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 1967, 1972, 1973, 1975, and 1976, and Golf magazine in 1988 celebrated American golf's centennial by naming Nicklaus the "Player of the Century."
Took Amateur Titles
Nicklaus shot a fifty-one for the first nine holes he ever played. At the age of 13 he broke a 70 and held a three handicap. By then his hero had become the great Jones, who won the 1926 U.S. Open at Nicklaus's home course, the Scioto Country Club. Tutored by club pro Jack Grout, Nicklaus early on realized his potential for tournament play, dominating local and national junior golf events and going on to capture two U.S. Amateur Championships (1959 and 1961). Indeed, by the time he turned pro in November 1961 he had established himself as an the country's greatest amateur golfer while simultaneously giving the professionals a scare as runner-up to Arnold Palmer by only two strokes in the 1960 U.S. Open and as an a fourth-place finisher in the 1961 U.S. Open.
Victory over Palmer
In 1962, at the Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburgh, Nicklaus beat Arnold Palmer in a play-off to win the U.S. Open. Palmer's millions of diehard fans—and huge throng of gallery members, called Arnie's Army, that followed their hero from tee to green—were crushed by their hero's loss, and the Nicklaus victory went down as an one of the most unpopular the world of golf had ever known. The two men could not have been more different in appearance and temperament. Palmer was a handsome, dashing figure whose powerful, lunging swing often knocked his ball into troublesome spots well off the fairway. Nicklaus was round-faced and pudgy—his girth and blond hair giving rise to his nickname, the Golden Bear—and his well-oiled, smoothly tempoed swing rarely failed him. Palmer wore his emotions on his sleeve, often grimacing and chain-smoking his way through a particularly tough round. Nicklaus was often expressionless on the course, and although he smoked—at one time up to two packs a day—he never lit up on the golf course. In explaining his ability to abstain from a nerve-smoothing addiction while playing a nerve-racking game, Nicklaus simply stated, "I don't think about it." Nicklaus's mind, even more than his great natural talent and long-ball swing, was the key to his phenomenal success. He rarely made a poor tactical decision in a tournament; he had an unflappable ego, never second-guessing himself—and his powers of concentration were intense.
In 1963 Nicklaus won the Masters and the PGA. He ran away with the 1965 Masters, winning by nine strokes in what Jones called "the greatest performance in golf history." Nicklaus shattered Hogan's seemingly insurmountable Masters record of 274 by three strokes. Nicklaus successfully defended his Masters title the following year and won his first British Open, becoming one of only four golfers to win all four majors (the others are Gene Sarazen, Hogan, and Gary Player). At the 1967 U.S. Open Nicklaus pulled away from Palmer in the final round to win by four strokes, signaling to even the most obstinate among Arnie's Army that the Golden Bear had forever robbed the king of his throne.
The New Bear
The beginning of the new decade saw a leaner, more fashionable Bear. Nicklaus dropped weight and let his golden hair grow prior to the 1970 season. He adopted more colorful golf course attire, adding color and flair to an image that had suffered from fat jokes and the general perception that Nicklaus was boring and mechanical. When it came to winning consistently, however, Nicklaus was every bit a machine. Between 1970 and 1975 he won several more majors—the only victories "that count," he liked to say. His 1973 PGA title put him one ahead of Jones's 13 major victories, and his 1975 Masters was his fifth win in Augusta, Georgia, and was proclaimed by observers and sportswriters to have been one of the most thrilling golf victories of all time. On Augusta's sixteenth hole the last day of the tournament, Nicklaus sank a 40-foot putt to take a one-stroke lead and held on the last two holes—winning by one over Tom Weiskopf and two over Johnny Miller.
Improved Failing Game
In 1977 Nicklaus was involved in a thrilling duel with Tom Watson, America's new star, at the British Open. He lost what sportswriters later called the "Duel in the Sun" but returned in 1978 to claim the British title. With the emergence of players such as Watson, however, Nicklaus's victories seemed less easy to come by with each passing year, and by the end of the decade, many in golfing believed that Nicklaus's dominance—at least when it came to the majors—had ended. In 1979 Nicklaus had his worst season to date, having gone winless and finishing seventy-first on the money list. His length off the tee and the long flight and high trajectory of his iron shots had once given him a huge advantage over the rest of the field—and had revolutionized the game. But there was a new generation of golfers who hit the ball as high and as far as their idol could. Nicklaus decided to go back to the drawing board, looking to improve his biggest weakness—the short game—and turn it into a strength. In 1980 he returned to top form, winning the U.S. Open and PGA Tour during the 1980s, and at the 1986 Masters he scored perhaps golf's most emotion-stirring victory. He had by then become the game's elder statesman and had gone from being golf's villain—the fat kid who beat Arnie—to being one of the most popular athletes the world of sports had ever known.